Hard Spell
by Justin Gustainis
Reviewed by Nu Yang
I've always wanted to read Justin Gustainis's books. Yes, I've seen his novels at the stores, drawn in by the dark urban fantasy covers. I even have a copy of Black Magic Woman (unread) still sitting on my bookshelf. Even when I found out he was going to attend the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop (a workshop I attended too), I let his book linger on my to-be-read pile. Then, I found out he was putting out a new book—the first in a series that combined the traditional noir genre with the popular urban fantasies he was already known for. As a fan of both genres, I jumped at the chance to review Hard Spell, and finally get to see what Mr. Gustainis was all about.

Overall, Hard Spell delivered. It was noir. It was urban fantasy. It had guns. It had vampires. It had a protagonist with a badge battling his inner demons. It had a protagonist with a badge battling, well, demons. The protagonist—Stan Markowski of the Scranton Police Department's Occult Crimes Unit. (Yes, that Scranton, the famous Pennsylvania town made famous in the hit-NBC comedy The Office, but this isn't the same city Michael Scott and company inhabit--although it would make an interesting crossover.) Something's killing local vampires, and it doesn't matter if vampires are technically already dead, a murder is still a crime that needs to be solved. Most importantly, it may linked to the recent murder of a wizard.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but there are lots of twists and turns—one that I will address at the end, so if you don't want to get spoiled, I'll warn you. 

I enjoyed the secondary characters especially Markowski's partner, Karl, and the neighboring Sargent Lacey Brennan, who loves telling dirty jokes. At times, there do seem to be too many characters and Gustainis likes going into detail about their appearances. I'm not sure if these characters will show up in future books (like the SWAT team member, and that's SWAT as in Sacred Weapons and Tactics), but I didn't feel it was necessary at the time. 

I did like the little world building tidbits Gustainis threw in to remind the reader this isn't the world we know--like the SWAT unit. Another example is when he opens the book with a history lesson about how the supernatural creatures have always been a part of our lives. I loved how Markowski tells us Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream” speech included the line, “black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, naturals and supernaturals” would live together in harmony. I chuckled at that.

Something that I found unusual was that there were no chapters in the book, which made the pacing unsteady at times.

Now, I'm going to give away some of the plot, so stop reading here if you don't want to get spoiled.

Although I enjoyed the rising tension Gustainis built with each dead vampire that popped up, I didn't understand why the killer didn't off the five vampires he needed right away for the spell to work. I might have missed that plot point though.

I also wasn't a fan of how the killer was revealed to be the son of the vampire head, who also happened to be helping Markowski on the case. It seemed too contrived and it didn't provide any tension since Dad was more than willing to help Markowski stop his son. 

Markowski messed up a lot. I like dark characters who aren't perfect, who don't have all the right answers, but even from the beginning, Markowski was involved with the death of his first partner. Then, he got a white light witch possessed by a black magic wizard. Then, he got a professor viciously murdered after the professor translated some evil spell for Markowski. Maybe it's to add more weight to Markowski's conscience, but I felt like all of his choices resulted in mistakes and deaths. 

The main twist I liked and didn't like at the same time was Markowski's daughter, Christine, who is actually a vampire. Christine was turned because Markowski didn't want her to die of leukemia, so basically, she didn't have a say in the matter. The same exact thing happens at the end of the book when Markowski has Christine turn a nearly-dead Karl after the big battle with the killer. Now, I don't remember Karl ever saying he wanted to become a vampire, but again, Markowski takes away that choice from someone else. In the preview page for the next book, we see that Karl has indeed been turned into a vampire.

In the end, it was a fast read filled with good tension and an interesting premise for a new series. Now, after reading Hard Spell, I am more inclined to pick up my copy of Black Magic Woman, so, it's nice to finally meet you, Mr. Gustainis.